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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Richard Kind and Daniel Reichard.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

If any comic operetta desperately needs comics, it’s Candide. And this time around, the New York City Opera has them in Richard Kind and Daniel Reichard.

That thumping sound you just heard echoing through town was either hundreds of opera die-hards fainting at the notion or Leonard Bernstein’s ghost rising from his grave for a long-postponed haunting. On the surface, one can’t blame them. While Kind and Reichard can sing, their respective work in shows like Bounce and Jersey Boys hasn’t suggested that either possesses the sepia-steeped resonance “true” music lovers demand in Bernstein’s ever-soaring, ever-rewritten opus (especially this incarnation, deemed “The Opera House Version.”)

It’s exactly this flouting of convention that makes them so necessary. Kind’s TV-honed, joke-seeking-missile bravado particularizes and energizes potentially thankless characters ranging from Voltaire (who authored the source novella) to the insufferably optimistic Doctor Pangloss and countless other authority figures the world over. Reichard’s ultra-modern ironic outlook and boyish charm fuse intelligence and innocence into a Candide as believable discovering killing or discovering sex as renouncing the narrow-minded philosophies on which he was raised.

Both actors’ unique takes elevate them above the fray of their stuffy stand-and-emote parts, and those that surround them. Kind’s bottomless bag of personalities may have been cut in the Catskills, but nonetheless invariably surprises; this is the first time I’ve ever looked forward to Pangloss’s restless reincarnations. Reichard connects completely with the ache-meets-adventure undercurrent of Candide’s tormented “It Must Be So,” setting up the globe-spanning picaresque to come more effectively than most manage.

What neither can do, however, is bestow much hope or form into the material. Bernstein’s compositions are exquisite, capturing in a wide range of styles the color, the romance, and the absurdity of Voltaire’s unpredictable travelogue. But because the book (by Hugh Wheeler) and the lyrics to which it’s shotgun-wedded (by Richard Wilbur, Bernstein, John LaTouche, and Stephen Sondheim) can’t match its adventurous spirit, it often seems to be the only element of worth. (Thankfully, conductor George Manahan and his orchestra acquit themselves admirably.)

City Opera’s production, inaugurated by Harold Prince in 1982 and recreated by Arthur Masella, attempts to spackle the gaps by volume: of traveling-theater sets (by Clarke Dunham), of period parody-specific costumes (by Judith Dolan), and of silliness (by everyone). It succeeds insofar as no matter how cloying or over-baked Wheeler’s writing becomes, it’s never a chore to endure. And in an evening loaded with narration that would slaughter momentum were there any to off, and scenes that seem to exist only to showcase songs Bernstein couldn’t bear to excise, this is no small achievement.

Even so, Candide is dependent on its performers to sell the difficult score and the even more difficult dialogue. Kind and Reichard are ably joined by Lauren Worsham, dizzily attracting as Candide’s lover Cunegonde and bestowing fierce force of will on the frantic funny bone of her satirical coloratura showpiece, “Glitter and Be Gay”; Kyle Pfortmiller, who’s improved since the last City Center outing (in 2005) to find more of the jealous Maximilian’s vainglorious spine; and Eric Michael Gillett and Robert Ousley as the most visible (and critical) fixtures of the stage-filling ensemble.

Jessica Wright needs to turn up the heat under her saucy home wrecker Paquette, and Judith Blazer is oddly deflated as the usually buoyant (and uproarious) Old Woman. The chorus sounds superb, granting great waves of ear-throbbing pleasure to the resplendent finale “Make Our Garden Grow,” but tends toward the bland and uninteresting when they’re not vocalizing.

Who can blame them? Bernstein and his corps of collaborators did not set them - or anyone - the best example by crafting a work that’s ecstatic only when it sings. At least with Kind and Reichard on hand, you can bask in estimable stars’ abilities to urge the impossible - however temporarily - to loftier, more enjoyable heights.

Through April 20
New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, between 62nd and 65th Streets and Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues
Tickets online and Performance Schedule: New York City Opera